You may have heard about the so-called super PACs running political ads on television in the Republican presidential race.
But this new kind of political action committee — which can accept unlimited donations from companies, unions and wealthy individuals — could also play a major role in Congressional contests.
Two Republicans in Washington D.C. with deep ties to Minnesota are playing major roles with one super PAC you'll likely hear more about as the November election draws near: the Congressional Leadership Fund, which aims to maintain the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
That means it's likely to run ads in close elections across the country. The group's chairman, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, said Republicans felt compelled to create the Congressional Leadership Fund.
"Nancy Pelosi created one, so in many ways this was just defense," he said.
The Congressional Leadership Fund has yet to file any paperwork detailing its fundraising or spending with the Federal Election Commission. Coleman said he doesn't know how much money the group will raise.
"These are new entities," he said. "It's a new world and how it plays out, I'm not sure."
Given Coleman's track record, it could be tens of millions of dollars.
During the 2010 campaign, Coleman ran a group he founded called the American Action Network that raised more than $30 million and spent $26 million on ads favoring Republican congressional candidates.
That kind of money could have an enormous affect on House races across the country, especially in a year when House Republicans will likely be playing defense, said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, a group that advocates for stricter limits on money in politics.
"It doesn't take as much money to make a difference in a House race," Ryan said. "A super PAC can come into a House race and spend a couple of million dollars and have that be a very, very significant piece of the total spending in that race and have a very big influence on voters."
The Congressional Leadership Fund has close ties to the American Action Network and House Republicans.
The fund's president, Brian Walsh, also runs the American Action Network. In 2009 and 2010, Walsh was the political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee — the political arm of House Republicans — and one of the architects of the Republican capture of the House in the 2010 elections.
While the Congressional Leadership Fund is technically considered an outside group that's not affiliated with the Republican Party, the fund held a kickoff fundraiser this fall that was attended by the top GOP leaders in the House, including Speaker John Boehner.
Under the rules governing super PACs, candidates can attend fundraising events for outside groups but cannot be in the room when the group asks for money.
That leads Ryan to conclude that groups such as the Congressional Leadership Fund aren't independent at all.
"You're seeing close relationships, participation in fundraisers by party leaders in the super PAC fundraising events," Ryan said. "Yeah, they are starting to look a lot like a party vehicle."
Coleman concedes that even if his group can't directly coordinate with candidates, it won't be hard to provide help that's tailored to each campaign's needs.
"It's easy to go on a website and to figure out what the issues are, what the needs are and what they're spending and where you can be helpful," he said.
Coleman said his super PAC wouldn't apply ideological litmus tests to candidates. But he cited U.S. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota's 2nd District as an example of the kind of candidate the PAC would tend to support. Kline is closely affiliated with party leadership.
The other Minnesotan deeply tied to the the Congressional Leadership Fund is former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber, who sits on the super PAC's board. Both Weber and Coleman are backing Mitt Romney for president and both also work as lobbyists.
At a time when the tea party has energized the conservative base of the party, Weber cautions that Republicans need to avoid ideological extremes.
"It's important to also maintain some breadth to the Republican message because there are places in the country where a very conservative Republican simply can't compete and a truly national party has to be able to be at least somewhat competitive everywhere," Weber said.
Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said Weber and Coleman are pragmatic enough to know that the Republican Party's best chance of holding on to power is to stay close to the center.
Ornstein said that's the message the Congressional Leadership Fund likely will use as it raises cash.
"They're getting their money from well-heeled multi-millionaire donors, corporations or individuals in the financial world or elsewhere who don't have much use for the tea party per se and who are out there to try and accomplish partisan ends," Ornstein said.
The group has to release its first fundraising totals by the end of the month.
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